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Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Robert Knott, Renee Zellweger

Directed by: Ed Harris

Produced by: Ed Harris, Robert Knott, Ginger Sledge

Written by: Ed Harris, Robert Knott

Distributor: Warner Bros.


“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

--Apparently an old adage, most recently used by Barack Obama to describe John McCain

     Why do I think of the above campaign-quote when I ponder how the masses will react to Appaloosa? After all, it’s not even the appropriate analogy. If we’re going to get technical, Appaloosa takes lipstick off the pig, but it’s still a pig with lipstick.

     Yeah, yeah – I realize I’m not making much sense here and I’ve already struck some of you as an amateur reviewer attempting to be topical. There’s a simple point I’m trying to make: no matter how differently people may perceive Appaloosa from the standard western, it still very much belongs to the genre. Yes, the movie may be more stripped down than others of its kind, but all the markings of a western are still in place.

     Neither Appaloosa’s adherence to genre-standards nor its minimalist approach are bad things, either. In fact, this may be the most interesting (and the best) western I’ve seen in years. Director Ed Harris has crafted the first setting and story in the genre (at least that I’ve experienced) that feel authentic to what life was really like in the Old West. Still in play are traditional themes regarding friendship, loyalty, revenge, and struggle, but these are all handled in more down-to-earth ways than you might observe in, say, Open Range. The big gunfight showdowns occur over about ten seconds, just as they actually would with men facing off toe-to-toe, and the central male bond is defined not by preachy dialogue but by long stretches of two men passing time together.

      Appaloosa moves like life really might in the time and place in which it is set. This is probably the reason that the average ADD American moviegoer might deny its status as a western. (Yes, I admit that I am merely speculating as to what mainstream cinema audiences will think of the picture—I hope I am wrong—but it seems to me that they’ll feel cheated given the film has been marketed as a western and doesn’t deliver loud and lengthy gunplay, an obnoxious villain, and over-exaggerated conversations about honor.) Whatever people may think, however, it’s this very approach that endows the picture with its distinguished beauty. Much as cinematographer Dean Semler’s sparse vision of the fictional New Mexican town of Appaloosa may lure the open-minded viewer into the action, it’s the hypnotizing pace of the film that really allows said viewer to connect with the characters and the story. The picture becomes involving in a first-person sense; Harris’ approach invites his audience to become patrons at Appaloosa’s diner and ride on horseback behind protagonists Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) as they vie to capture villain Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).

     I don’t want you to read that last sentence in the glib way that you might be inclined to; I’m not at all intending to seem like a quote-whore who loudly proclaims “You’ll feel like you’re really there!” Instead, I’m merely using hyperbole to express just how unique Appaloosa is in the way that it crafts its setting.

     But as I’ve already stated, Appaloosa is indeed a true-to-form western despite its distinctive features. In the lead roles, Harris and Mortensen share strong chemistry that is essential to the movie’s take on traditional western commentary on the nature of friendship and duty. Irons makes for a challengingly elusive—though nonetheless entirely devilish—villain, even if he isn’t as cartoonishly evil as many of might expect. And Renée Zellweger turns in fine work as an Old West femme fatale of sorts, making for a spicy addition to the plot.

     Speaking of the plot: I have intentionally not mentioned many details because a “virgin” cinema-going experience is in this case crucial to one’s ability to digest the film’s thematic arc. If you go into Appaloosa not expecting the western that Hollywood has force-fed you for God knows how long—this ain’t no Unforgiven, but it’s comparably genre-revitalizing—but rather one that takes risks within a loose mold, then you’ll love it. Lipstick or not, this is one pig (err… motion-picture) well worth the intelligent viewer’s time and money.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 9.25.2008

Screened on: 9.19.2008 at the Landmark in West Los Angeles, CA.


Appaloosa is rated R and runs 108 minutes.

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